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Songbirds in Indonesia: Past and Present

Birds are closely related to the culture and development of society in Indonesia, as well as eastern nations in general. For many communities, birds are affirmed as cultural symbols as well as symbols of magical powers. Historically, bird keeping in Java was only prevalent among the nobility (priyayi) as a symbol of social status. Nobility characterized by poise and authority is represented by certain bird species, the most popular being the Zebra Dove (Geopelia striata) and Straw-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus).

In communities on the island of Java, bird-keeping has cultural roots in the past. In the past, keeping birds reflected social status, a symbol of tranquility and beauty, and a symbol of perfection in life. There is a motto for Javanese men that life is perfect if they have five things: wealth (narpadha), house (wisma), wife (garwa), vehicle (turangga), and pets (kukila) (Iskandar, 2014; Jepson, 2010; Supriyadi, 2008).

Birds in the context of Javanese tradition represent kukila, which is a pet animal. Actually, pet in this context has a broad meaning not only for birds, but the choice of the word kukila in Javanese language refers more to birds as pets. On the other hand, in Javanese society that still strongly maintains the priyayi (palace) tradition, birds are also a symbol of a certain social status. Among social statuses that have a penchant for keeping birds, there are usually bird enthusiasts' associations that serve as a medium for social interaction among bird enthusiasts, such as the association of Zebra Dove enthusiasts in several regions.

In socio-cultural development, the meaning of bird keeping began to change in modern times. Bird keeping is no longer seen only as a symbol and is no longer limited to certain circles. Bird keeping has developed into a hobby for all people who enjoy the aesthetics of their bodies and sounds (Jepson, 2010; Supriyadi, 2008). The aesthetic factor became an attraction that was then commodified through songbird competitions; a new chapter in the evolution of bird-keeping behavior. Songbird competitions then became one of the main activities for bird keepers. In many places, large and small-scale competitions are held that attract many fans as well as the general public.

Songbird keeping in Indonesia

The increasing number of hobbyists and the bird-keeping industry has become a serious conservation issue. A 2005 study in Java and Bali suggested that 2.8 million birds were kept in cages, of which nearly half were wild-caught (Jepson and Ladle, 2005). 13 years later, a recent study estimated that there were at least 60 million birds kept in cages by nearly 12 million households in Java alone.

To illustrate the massiveness of bird keeping today, this number is equivalent to one in two households keeping at least one bird. The most commonly kept songbird species include lovebird, followed by canary, pigeon, White-rumped Shama (magpie), Oriental Magpie-robin (kacer), White-eye (pleci), Yellow-vented Bulbul (trucukan), Leafbird (cucak ijo), Javan Pied Starling, and Long-tailed Shrike (toed) (Marshall et al., 2015), 2020)

Jepson and Ladle (2005) have shown that 42.3% of the 2.8 million birds kept in major cities in Java and Bali are wild-caught. Many of these species are endangered or protected. Ten years on, the assumption that birds traded in bird stalls and markets come from poaching is still valid. A survey by Chng et al. (2015) found that as many as 19,000 birds of 206 species were traded in just three major bird markets in Jakarta. The majority of birds sold are strongly suspected to be poached, considering that 184 species (98%) are native to Indonesia, 51 species are endemic to Indonesia, and 22 species are protected. A recent survey by Marshall et al. (2020) states that there are at least 112 species of birds kept in the main cities of Java Island, 12% of which are listed as Near Threatened to Endangered.

One of the bird markets in Yogyakarta (Photo: Burung Indonesia/Ferry Hasudungan)

Birds' role in nature

Ecologically, the role of birds can be seen from the utilization of birds as a bio-monitoring medium for the environment. In several countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Germany, the development of bio-monitoring using birds as a medium has begun to be developed. Birds are used as a medium to control the occurrence of pollution or changes in the environment by looking at the presence or absence of these birds in certain locations. Or in other words, the presence of birds is a sign of environmental change or not.

Some of the uses of birds as bio-monitors developed in several other countries include monitoring changes in water quality, indicators of radioactive substance pollution and indicators of changes in fish stocks (Furness and Greenwood, 1993). Not only in developed countries, the role of birds as environmental bio-monitors has long been recognized in Indonesia as natural predators of several types of pests in agricultural land.

Several bird species (eagle, drongo, flycatcher, shrike, and rail) are known by local farmers as insect eaters that are very disruptive to agricultural activities. In addition, birds can also act as seed dispersers, and accelerate the weathering of rotten wood to maintain forest ecology (Mackinnon, 1984).

For farmers, birds can be very useful natural working partners. Birds consume a large variety of food sources and their ability to fly allows them to cover large areas. Insect-eating birds can be effective pest controllers, helping farmers maintain stable yields and reduce losses due to excessive operational costs for pesticides.

Tiger Shrike Lanius tigrinus (Foto: Burung Indonesia/Jihad)

Research in coffee plantations, for example, has shown that the presence of large numbers of insectivorous birds correlates with minimal fruit and leaf damage caused by fruit tree borers (Greenberg et al., 2000). Johnson et al. (2009) also found that coffee plantations that maintained a high abundance of insectivorous birds had a yield advantage of 4 million rupiah more than coffee plantations with minimal insectivorous birds. The long list of roles of birds for agriculture can be extended with the recognition of various species of nectar-eating birds that assist in the pollination process and allow fruit formation to occur (Whelan et al., 2015).

Another example of the role of birds on agricultural commodities is on 30 small coffee farms in Costa Rica, researchers compared how plants grew when isolated from birds and bees. The experiment helped the researchers quantify the economic value of pest control, pollination and the combined effect on coffee production. The results showed that birds and bees increased yield and fruit weight by 4-11% and reduced fruit-destroying bugs.

Para penulis studi memperkirakan kehilangan kehadiran burung maupun lebah akan menyebabkan kerugian hasil rata-rata sebesar 24,7%, yang setara dengan $1.066/ha (~16 jt rupiah/ha). Sekitar 35-40% tanaman potensial di seluruh dunia hancur oleh hama, seperti belalang gurun (Schistocerca gregaria) atau ulat grayak (Spodoptera exempta). Padahal di sisi lainnya, serangga tersebut menjadi camilan lezat bagi burung seperti burung cikrak daun (Phylloscopus trivirgatus), cikrak jawa (Phylloscopus grammiceps) atau cikrak kutub (Phylloscopus borealis). Oleh karenanya, banyak ahli menganalogikan bahwa merawat alam dan keragaman burung sama halnya dengan menjaga penghidupan kita sendiri.

Di Indonesia, salah satu jenis burung kicau yang berperan dalam pertanian kopi di Indonesia adalah burung kacamata atau pleci seperti kacamata hume (Zosterops auriventer). Burung ini juga merupakan spesies yang sangat sering di temukan di kebun-kebun kopi di dataran tinggi Gayo. Hasil survei keanekaragaman burung di perkebunan kopi yang dilaksanakan oleh Yayasan Leuser Internasional (YLI) menemukan bahwa burung kacamata adalah jenis burung yang ditemukan hampir di seluruh titik pengamatan di wilayah survei Kabupaten Bener Meriah. Survei yang melibatkan komunitas Aceh Birder dan Lembaga Pusat Kajian Satwa Liar (PKSL) Fakultas Kedokteran Hewan Universitas Syiah Kuala menentukan 12 titik pengamatan yang berada dalam zona ketinggian dari 500 m s.d. 1800 meter di atas permukaan laut.

The phenomenon of increasing caterpillar populations in the Gayo Highlands is thought to be due to a reduction in the diversity of birds that serve as natural predators. Many of their populations are dwindling due to hunting and trade. Field observations by YLI also found that the White-eye birds are sought after for songbird competitions. If this continues, it can be expected to affect the production and unique taste of gayo arabica coffee.

In line with YLI's statement and research results, gayo coffee farmer and businessman Shafa A Fanur also called on all parties not to hunt White-eya birds, as they can affect the quality of gayo coffee. The White-eye bird is one of the key species that plays an important role in maintaining the quality of gayo coffee because it preys on pests, especially coffee fruit borers. Shafa revealed that the presence of White-eye birds in gayo coffee plantations has an important impact on the coffee farming ecosystem and the quality of coffee beans so that the integrity of the gayo coffee flavor is maintained. In Withaningsih & Alham's (2020) research conducted on coffee farms in Pangalengan Bandung also found bird diversity with the dominance of Sooty-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus aurigaster), Common Tailorbird (Orthotomus sutorius), Ashy Tailorbird (Orthotomus ruficeps), Lesser Shortwing (Brachypteryx leucophrys) which are songbirds and insect eaters. This indicates that the diversity of songbird species can help control pests in coffee plantations.

These ideal conditions and the role of birds in nature can only be achieved if bird populations and the structure of bird communities in nature are maintained. On the other hand, birds can have a negative impact on the environment if they are released as invasive species in certain environments. Many of these captive birds are intentionally or unintentionally released by their owners. Many of these released birds are not in their natural habitat and can potentially disrupt other bird populations that are naturally present in a habitat and undermine their role in nature.

Selain bahaya spesies invasif, burung-burung ini juga banyak yang dikawin silang tidak sesuai dengan spesiesnya akan menjadi kehancuran genetik bagi spesies tersebut dan tidak bisa dilepasliarkan. One example of a genetic case in birds is genetic research on Seychelles Warblers (Acrocephalus sechellensis) which shows that inbreeding not only accelerates the aging of individuals, but also their offspring.

The research was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of East Anglia (UAE), UK. The research, published in the Journal of Molecular Ecology, shows that birds that inbreed have short telomeres, which get shorter under stressful conditions such as reduced food supply in certain seasons. "Animals that are inbreeding are more susceptible to disease because they don't have as much variation in their genes," Bebbington said.

*Telomeres are the very ends of chromosomes that consist of tandem repeats of DNA.

Text by: Ivanna Febrissa and Achmad Ridha Junaid